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Destroyer Does Dad-Rock? Discuss! (Kaputt, Again)

by Chris Randle

Carl wrote a long post about Destroyer’s Kaputt last week, and on Tumblr there was much rejoicing: “Finally, commentary worthy of the album.” I wasn’t going to top that, so I decided to focus on the previous critical discussion around this obsession-forming record. Carl alluded to it: various writers bringing up “dad rock” like Roxy Music and Steely Dan, or fixating on Dan Bejar’s use of “cheesy” musical signifiers. (Rifle through the 800-posts-and-counting ILX thread to find arguments for and against those interpretations.) Why not test their theories on an actual dad? Mine was born in the early 1950s. Like Bryan Ferry, half of the Eurythmics and Kenickie, he is from Sunderland. The only Kaputt reference point I gave to him before putting it on was “Vancouver.”

Dad: It’s playing “Chinatown.”

Chris: It’s supposed to be!

Dad: It doesn’t sound very modern. It sounds like something you’d hear 20-30 years ago. The first two, especially the second one, were kind of Bowie-like. When I was growing up, you would call this “soft rock.”

Chris: His earlier records never really sounded like this – they didn’t have the sax solos or the trumpets. The closest one is an album called Your Blues, but its similarities also seem radically different because all the music was made with MIDI simulations. Even his voice is a little restrained here, when it’s normally very, uh, idiosyncratic. A lot of critics have cited later Roxy Music as a possible inspiration. Bejar himself, too.

Dad: Roxy Music had a bigger edge. This is more conventional, I would say, the music anyway. If you listen to the Roxy Music stuff, the guitar often sounds…jagged in some sense.

[Chris is relieved that his dad didn’t go for “angular”]

Dad: These lyrics are…interesting. “Wise, old, black and dead in the snow…Don’t talk about the South…”

Chris: They’re made up of text that the artist Kara Walker gave to him. Bejar returns to America over and over again in his lyrics, as a subject or a symbol, but I don’t think he’s ever mentioned race before.

Dad: It’s okay, but it doesn’t have that distinctiveness of a Bowie or a Steely Dan. Mainly I think because of the music, it’s too monotonous. They need a bit of quirkiness in it.

Chris: You mean, aside from the lyrics?

Dad: Some of the lyrics are quirky! Why is he singing about Melody Maker and NME?

[Chris tries to think of an answer that doesn’t involve the word “metacommentary,” gives up]

Dad: This sounds a bit different, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album at all. It’s psychedelic and it’s like…LSD music.

Chris: It’s his disco single. Sort of.

Dad: I think this track was added to fill the record up.

Chris: The vinyl version has a 20-minute-long instrumental sequenced before this one, though! Maybe the hardcore fans just couldn’t get enough “Bay of Pigs.”

Dad: Quite good to listen to, overall. Some of the lyrics are good. It’s harmless, I would say. It sounded…languid. This 25-year-old throwback to jazzy soft rock. You never get the sense that Brian Ferry is just sitting around singing, it always sounds like they’re in a club or some other smoky, boozy place. [Bejar has said that he recorded some of Kaputt‘s vocals while lying around or “fixing myself a sandwich.”]

Chris: One review invoked the cover for Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man – it argued that Bejar is playing a similar character, this aging playboy who’s become a little wiser and faintly amused by it all.

Postscript: I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this conversation, if any, but it is funny that lots of music nerds (myself included) hear jarring, almost toxic beauty in Kaputt when my dad just thought it was blandly pleasant. Épater that!

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Filed under chris randle, music

Kaputt by Destroyer (2011)

by Carl Wilson

Two minutes into “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” perhaps the most-talked-about song on Destroyer’s new album, Kaputt, I start getting insistent tugs on my ear from this 35-year-old antecedent (the guitarist in the video even looks a little like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar):

“Lovin’ You” always bedeviled me, with its insipidly fluid bliss and its deeply dubious central assertion, “Lovin’ you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful.” Which makes me want to sing along with Dan on “Suicide Demo” (words provided by artist Kara Walker): “You’ve got it all … wrong. You’ve got it all backwards, girl.”

As the entire tradition of romantic lyric back to Sappho underlines in red ink, being in love with someone especially beautiful is generally not described as “easy.” Khaela Maricich (The Blow) once joked that “Lovin’ You” was the only song she could think of “just about happily being in love with someone and everything’s great and you’re just chillin’ there together”; she mimicked the way Minnie Riperton’s verses trail off into non-verbal babble as proof of how little you can say about that state, if it even exists and isn’t just a utopian lie we tell.

There’s a 1975 glibness in “Lovin’ You”‘s use of the word “beautiful” – yr beautiful, baby, don’t ever change, yr beautiful, I’m beautiful, we’re both so beautiful to me when U walk behind me as I gaze into this mirror naked, upper lip & nostrils caked w/ layer on layer of cocaine, & btw lines we come down on a half-bottle of Jack. Lovin’ U is EZ, when U can get it up tho that’s less & less often…

Less cynically, given its period context, maybe Riperton’s alluding to “Black is beautiful,” staking claim on that utopian story specifically for black men and black women together: given the wreckage slavery and racism have wrought on black families and relationships, an even more utopian, radical proposition than usual. (Worth mentioning here because, through [consensually] appropriating Walker’s words, this is the first Destroyer song I can think of that’s even obliquely about race.)

Like a lot of utopian slogans, “Black is beautiful” always had a difficult undertow: Did it mean that Black Power (as the Angela Davis/Huey Newton image  could imply) belonged to the young and fine, not the aging, broke-ass, wrinkly-mugged, poor, hungry or cranky? Many Sixties ideals were doomed to premature decadence because “don’t trust anybody over 30” tilted against the bodily, biological destiny of the radical subjects themselves.

On a simpler level, the hook of “Lovin’ You” always drove me nuts because of its implicit corollary: On the other hand, lovin’ you would be difficult-to-impossible, because you’re one homely mofo. I’m out of your league. What’s ‘easy’ for me has to flatter my shallow narcissism, the way those glissandos and flutes do. (NB this is the song saying this, not Riperton herself.)

So have at it: Is it easier to love the beautiful? In aesthetics this is the riddle of the Sphinx, with her upper lip and lower nostrils caked in layer upon layer of history, mystification, rejection and body glitter licked off the ski-slope bosom of a life model.

Alexander Nehamas has written, “Beauty is the most discredited philosophical notion – so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited. … For it is the judgment of aesthetic value itself – the judgment of taste – that is embarrassing.”

Before Kaputt, Destroyer seemed a strong partisan of that discomfort, holding that the beautiful – the materially beautiful, the well-made, sensually satiating, seductive, limpid or opulent – is the enemy of love, or at best the frenemy: It wasn’t shut out – this wasn’t noise music; there were melodies, chord voicings, cadences resolving, singers going “ladada,” as well as mentions of pretty girls and Rubies – but those things came in for heavy ribbing and skepticism.

Kaputt’s closest precedent among Destroyer albums to now was Your Blues, his previous “farewell to rock” in favour of more butterfly-wings textures, but because the strings and woodwinds were MIDI simulations they came with their ironies programmed in, their “embarrassment” in Nehamas’ terms: With its laminated surfaces reflecting back the acknowledged tackiness of their prettiness and amiability, the record kept itself on the “right” side of camp (that is, the left side). Kaputt works without that hedge.

People who didn’t like Your Blues called it ugly, jokey, anti-musical, while people who don’t like Kaputt, like some members of the Polaris Prize jury at large, call it “wallpaper music.” Your Blues threatened you with gorgeousness barely enough to lure your feet to the trap door and your neck to the noose. Kaputt just comes on gorgeous and necks with you and leaves you to wonder whether you are now in Heaven or in Hell, or (forget it) Chinatown, Jake.

With an opening track titled for that interzone where all rules are suspended or reversed, we’re put on notice this is still Destroyer here, still Shiva among the aspects of the godhead– the trickster, transformer, prankster, Heath-Ledger’s-Joker of music, the lunging voice darting between levels of rhetoric. Did I ever tell you how I got these scars? – setting in spin a rotating display of mendacity: I got them on the Nile, rescuing Jews from Pharaoh; I bought them from a dominatrix at a hefty price; my mother kissed me too hard as a baby; they’re all self-inflicted with my K-Mart calligraphy pen …

“You terrify the land,” Bejar sings on “Blue Eyes.” “You are pestle and mortar. You’re first love’s New Order, Mother Nature’s Sun, King of the Everglades, Population One … I write poetry for myself, I write poetry for myself. (Oh, baby.)”

I write poetry for myself, so I let it get pretty silly, but for you I’ll make these crystal baubles of sonic costume jewellery, and you can wear them cockeyed or straight.

At last, Destroyer’s roguishness has lost all trace of brattiness. It’s the music of the rake, the seducer for whom the boudoir is the site of both sustenance and cosmic belly-laugh, a game of chance that – and this is both graciousness and ultimate manipulation – he flatteringly assumes his partner(/listener) can play with equally wised-up gusto.

It’s not just a change of style but a reassessment of stakes, as any alteration in an artist’s relation to Beauty has flat-out got to be. After a mid-period of what now looks a bit like a style outliving its agenda, Kaputt transports us to a plane where pre-emptive radical pessimism reconciles with the biological, with the body – which is to say pop music. After all, this is Bejar’s first record after becoming a father (a transition that for a while found him flirting with giving up on music altogether, as we heard on “Making of Grief Point” in 2010), and as he’s pushing 40.

The stakes used to be cultural life-or-death, even though death was almost certain to win; now the stakes are just plain life-and-death, and since there’s no “almost” in how that pans out, the only smart contrarian way to go is to put some life into it, some pleasure principle, some sensual consolation, while not ignoring the social friction, the bumps and scars (did I tell you where I got them?) that come from bodies shoving against each other to claim resources: “Kara Walker” aside even, there are more explicitly political jibes and japes on this Destroyer record than on any since the early tapes, or at least ones that aren’t transposed into jokes about monarchs,  aristocrats and/or the music industry.

The ingredients of the sound are post-glam 1970s like Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, “Quiet Storm”-style R&B of the kind Riperton presaged (a lot of people, without mentioning “Lovin’ You,” have compared her voice to that of  Sibel Thrasher, the Vancouver soul-gospel singer whose frequent contributions on Kaputt finally bring counterpoint to all the female foils/projections that have dotted Destroyer lyrics), lovers’ rock like Sade, post-punk Nu-Romantic keyboard bands (the sound of Dan’s adolescence)… all post-radical musics for cultures in recovery and all involving  rehabilitations of Beauty, which after each failed revolution sounds so old and long-forgotten that its reappearance is as startling and exotic as a red-shanked douc.

Dave Hickey famously wrote (referring to Liberace) that “good” taste is just the residue of somebody else’s privilege, but that kind of taste can also be the residue of the radicalism of someone who might have borne your own name: a way of reincorporating, altered, what we once rejected and negated, not having known we might need it to survive the aftermath or at least the afterparty. Either way whether those efforts get received as good taste or bad depends upon where the observer stands on our ignoble effrontery in continuing on past a story’s designated end.

Most of those Kaputt influences were savaged by critics in their day, though they’ve retroactively gained cred in our own more ecumenical time. (Which suits Dan fine, as only a foolish artist keeps trying to stay “ahead” stylistically once they’re no longer young, when it’s time to stop trying to be novel and try to be better.) I think in particular of Greil Marcus saying, when asked about Anita Baker (a clear heir to Riperton): “I think Anita Baker is ridiculous. Any time you hear somebody bringing back this kind of genteel, effete black music – the same number the Pointer Sisters pulled in the early ’70s when they gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets – it’s an incident in class politics that has nothing to do with music.”

My friend John has frequently railed about that quote as the epitome of the white hipster critic’s inability to get behind materially underprivileged people’s rational aspiration to comfort, gentility, privilege, all that’s been denied them. John’s gone so far as to call it “hateful” on that level, but I’m more inclined to extend forgiveness for the letdown, Panther-sympathizer, revanchist perspective it comes from, however armchair and half-cocked.

What Marcus overlooks is that aspirational sounds can not only ring of the post-radical but of the post-colonial, decline-of-empire, will-to-justice. In that sense they’re all our recessionary peers: Outside the 10% who control the 50%, who can afford not to aspire now? And who at any time, pushing 40, is not aspirational in the impossible lottery of immortality, of restored youth, of even imagining having the will, much less the liberty to “chase cocaine through the back rooms of the world”? All music becomes aspirational given world enough and time, so you don’t have to call it retro, as you can always have your nostalgia in advance, a case of déjà-preview: That’s why instead of “yacht rock” or “dad rock” I prefer to call Kaputt “positive witch house.”

Kaputt can admit all those urges, and put them in quotes-within-quotes, without finding them justifiable. What’s interesting is how many people, aside from a few wallpaper-sayers, seem to get it: When I saw a Destroyer video on MuchMusic for the first time the other night, namely Dawn Carol Garcia’s ticklish video for the title track, I said in my Facebook status update, “2003’s head just exploded.” Maybe what people are liking is just the beauty, the glimmer of the production values, like the old folks at Sulimay’s. But I think they’re also liking the taste of poison within the sugar pill, that metallic edge, the familiarity of the bitter.

As Nehamas goes on to say: “Unlike a conclusion, [beauty] obeys no principles; it is not governed by concepts. It goes beyond all the evidence, which cannot therefore justify it, and points to the future. Beauty, just as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness.”

A promise it has no intention of keeping, unless the promise is enough. Which it isn’t. Lovin’ Kaputt is easy, because it’s a beautiful loser, but beauty is only the beginning of terror, coolly declining to destroy us today. One more day. At a time.

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Filed under carl wilson, literature, music

Tea With Chris: Sleazy/Surreal

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: I’d considered writing an essay about Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy this year, but now that the wonderful Nancy Panels tumblr exists I feel compelled to do so. What did 1950s kids make of that unfiltered abstraction?

Thanks, Wikipedia. Did you know about this, Jody? “The Barrison Sisters were a risqué Vaudeville act who performed in the United States and Europe from about 1891 to 1900, advertised as The Wickedest Girls In the World. In their most famous act, the sisters would dance, raising their skirts slightly above their knees, and ask the audience, ‘Would you like to see my pussy?’ When they had coaxed the audience into an enthusiastic response, they would raise up their skirts, revealing that each sister was wearing underwear of their own manufacture that had a live kitten secured over the crotch.”

The new Destroyer music video, which goes from sleazy to surreal, is of a piece with its parent album’s jazzy louche-rock. When I was a kid, I assumed that my father’s extensive collection of Roxy Music and Steely Dan was bloodless “dad music.” Freudian, huh?

Carl: On Wednesday I discovered what I thought was the coolest iPhone app in the world. (And I am told that it works.) I said on Facebook, “It’s like the sunglasses in They Live except for languages instead of capitalism.” (Btw, I hear Jonathan Lethem’s book about that movie is great.) Later I discovered that this is a whole field’s worth of phone-based “augmented reality.” Predictably, Google has found a way to build in the capitalism.

Speaking of augmented reality: In a way it’s sad when things that are utterly un-Internet-like become assimilated to it. But that feeling pales before the joy of being able to read this proto-sorta-feminist magazine for aspiring groupies from Los Angeles in 1973 Take the “How Far-Out Are You?” quiz and consider the matter of “The Black Foxy Lady: Can you measure up to her?” In issue no. 2, the stars of the Groupies comic strip try to sneak backstage at an Alice Cooper show by wearing a snake costume and Louise Redbeard warns about “The Going Steady Trap.” Like groupies in general, the magazine doesn’t really challenge patriarchy on any level except the promiscuity taboo. But hell, that’s a big one.

To have a lot more stereotypes challenged, though, please to ring in 2011 with twelve CD’s worth of female-fronted heavy metal.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson

Top 10 Moments, Gestures and Consolations of 2010

by Carl Wilson

[With a debt of gratitude to Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10, the Back to the World team is reviewing 2010 on a free-associative, nerve-impulsive basis. I’ve confined myself to things I haven’t already written about at length on this site this year, and discarded all critical-game rules of rank, comprehensiveness or balance. Another week it might be another 10.]

1. Collective redemptions: Auto-Tune the Meme

Antoine Dodson, singer of the year

I don’t know how long it will last but for now it’s a blessing to live when whatever nonsense goes viral will be remixed with Auto-Tune, usually by the reliably silly Gregory Brothers. What was the sonic signature of high-end rap/R&B (and Asian and Caribbean pop) in the ’00s becomes the crazed sound of the inside-out unconscious of the Internet digesting fetishes in the ’10s. Which comes with a disturbing side, of course: What seems fair game for politicians and newscasters on the Bros.’ great, long-running Auto-Tune the News series, and unimportant when it’s Double Rainbow Guy, becomes more complex when it comes to Antoine Dodson losing his shit about a rapist in the Huntsville projects on a local news report.

Without music, it seemed nauseatingly clear people were mocking the way a gay, black man in a poor neighbourhood of Alabama spoke in a state of distress. But the music, I’d argue, really did transform that into a celebration of Dodson’s flair and sincerity, into a tune so distinctive that it can be played without words by a marching band (at a historically black university, fwiw) and still hit the same sweet divot in the brain pain. And the Dodson family was able to buy a house on the spinoff proceeds, inverting the usual consciencelessness of that Internet unconscious.

Would it be too treacly to say that it’s a reminder of how rhythm, melody and harmony are ancient technologies to mediate alienation and generate human connection? Definitely, but grant me an Xmas pass.

2. Candid-camera delusions of grandeur/grotesquery: Destroyer ft. Loscil, “Grief Point” (Archer on the Beach EP)

Destroyer, Archer on the Beach

Another angle on the music/reality blur zone comes from Dan Bejar: This song is how it would be if songs or albums regularly came with the commentary tracks we’re used to on DVDs of movies and television, presuming that the commentaries were written by self-excoriating poets of course. (There’s precedent in the Dr. Horrible musical’s musical commentary tracks, though to more blatantly comic effect.)

Dan voices notebook entries seemingly written while recording last year’s “Bay of Pigs,” the “ambient-disco” song apparently originally titled “Grief Point” (or “May Day,” or “Christine White”) that reappears as the closing highlight of the upcoming Kaputt album, about which much more in the New Year. The way this track keeps up the links in this three-year chain of significance/striptease is part of the pleasure.

I prefer the denser EP version to the superminimal “Making of Grief Point” that Loscil (Vancouver electronic composer Scott Morgan) released earlier in the year: This one better fulfills and thus escapes what Dan calls “the same old shit. A potential, complete ignorance of ambience, real ambience, in that: Can you really construct it, every last bit of it, and just let the listener feel its effects? And is this the right treatment? Always the same question.”

The paradox of the ambient, which is Loscil’s genre, has percolated since Brian Eno coined it: How to listen to music not designed to be listened to, only heard? This track revisits that issue as the life/art problem (blah blah John Cage blah) etched in blood: Trust Destroyer to come up with a genre one could call Brian Emo.

As Dan considers whether to quit music or to be happy that he hates what he’s recording because “it means I’ve changed,” he flirts with the lines between social-media-panoptical self-indulgence and self-celebritizing and the substantive mental torment inherent to making meaning.

That’s what many of the most vital artists’ work currently does – such as B2TW intimate Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel How Should a Person Be?, which found a surprising champion in The New York Observer this week; but then the Observer, name down, has always been the cultural voyeur’s broadsheet.

Yet Destroyer was in this territory well ahead of the pack – “your backlash was right where I wanted you/ yes, that’s right, I wanted you,” he sang, before having enough recognition to get backlash. And he approaches it with a half-careless swagger but also a wolfish hunger to make the risks count, this fucking time at last at last.

3. Sex is so much more than sex: You Can Have It All, a performance by Mammalian Diving Reflex, Feb. 12-13, Toronto

"The Best Sex I've Ever Had"

Perhaps Ontario, the home of the old-lady sex Yoda, Sue Johanson, may inevitably eventually have generated something like this performance, but we’re lucky to have artist Darren O’Donnell to nudge it along.

Having advertised on telephone poles and bulletin boards for people “over 65 and still thinking about sex,” he gathered an incredible panel of women and men to first workshop and then publicly talk about their erotic lives in intimate, funny and often wrenching detail.

I can’t reproduce the effect here, except to say how exhilarating it was to hear how recent the participants’ greatest sexual experiences (in their opinions) often were. And conversely how intense it is to talk about great sex with someone now dead. … Funeral speeches that never were.

For all their universality it’s also a very local conversation; every community should bring in O’Donnell to root out these words stirring unspoken among them.

But the thing I was left thinking about most was that all the straight men on the panel dropped out before the performances: Was this just a generational blip or does it reveal something deep and hard to uproot about gender, power and vulnerability? (Including O’Donnell’s own power dynamic as a director, though that seems too simple.)

4. Past, unpassed: Richard Harrow (played by Jack Huston) on Boardwalk Empire

The best TV show I watched in 2010 was no doubt the third season of Breaking Bad, but the best thing on TV was this extraordinary character on an otherwise mediocre series.

Sniper-turned-hit-man Richard Harrow is a veteran of World War 1 whose face was so maimed in battle so that he wears a painted tin mask in public – a historically accurate representation inspired by this Smithsonian Magazine article. He befriends one of the central characters, fellow vet Jimmy Darmody (the anemic Michael Pitt), whose mutilation is less visible but similarly soul-obstructing. Together they use their skills to make themselves other-than-disposable to men in power the one way they know: murder at someone else’s command.

Yet Harrow (despite his wince-worthy, typically Boardwalk Empire-showboating name), as image, and in Jack Huston‘s physical and vocal dance (he is the mess of tics we all would be in his place, but never a cartoon), more than even Steve Buscemi’s ever-virtuosic lead, inspires a sympathetic vibration very near love. At one point, to soothe spooked children, he jokingly calls himself the Tin Man (referring to the book, not the yet-unmade film). Huston (grandson of John, nephew of Angelica) earns the parallel.

Boardwalk Empire‘s fatal flaw is its jones to emulate its media-gangster icons, from The Sopranos (on which its creators worked) to The Godfather and the best films of producer Martin Scorsese. But to do something memorable with the dawn-of-Prohibition lawlessness it aimed at, it needed someone more like David Lynch, who could capture the uncapturability of those silent-film years: the way its sensibility is just out of reach of an audience for whom history really begins with the talky mass-cultural connection that’s come to spell “20th century.”

That there was a 20th century before the 20th century is a fact the tapes in our cathode-ray lizard-brain stems don’t readily disclose. (As a music guy, I’m sad their takes on Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker don’t gel, though the Hardini-Houdini’s-brother riff had legs.)

Thus the series can’t give us the uncanniness, the unheimlich feeling of meeting Freud’s day on its own terms. Except with Richard Harrow. In his face we get a time before medicine was anything we’d see as fit for the title, when the compromises had other stakes – the spasms that pushed the modern out its birth canal. Upheavals still felt like phantom pains in today’s post-everything pathologies. What a story that could have been.

5. Mantler, Monody

There were days this year I wanted to live in a ditch. I wanted rats to nibble at my shoelaces and beetles to replace the pupils of my eyes. Too often I got right down in that culvert and dug my elbows into the grime and let the parasites feast on my shit, then come back up and spit it in my ears.

If I knew a little better any given Sunday, though, I’d put on Toronto singer-songwriter Mantler‘s record and then the goat-footed balloon man would come laughing, “Have you forgotten the word ‘mudluscious’? What’s wrong, fetish not got your tongue? Displace a little up-up-and-away into me, and wrap your troubles in dreams till they’re helium-drunk and far and wee.”

That most hospitals were never told about this miracle cure is one of the true scandals of 2010. That it had been six years since the last release of the absintheian elixir that Mantler (Chris Cummings) pours generously out of a cauldron full of white suits and colour organs and herbs that taste like bells is the occasion of every party you should have been invited to when some sad bastard forgot your name.

6. Not ready to make nice: Bernie Sanders’ 8-hour semi-filibuster

Bernie Sanders: Mad as hell and he didn't have time to go round and round and round... but did it anyway, dammit

What I don’t really want to talk about, despite how much it weighed through 2010, is how hard it was to keep supporting Barack Obama (if Canadian support counts). Especially after November, when the tax deal, in particular, seemed to squander a vital “lame duck” opportunity to counterbalance the upcoming bullying of liberty, logic and economic justice by the Republican House.

But then there was this bit of performance art in opposition to tax cuts for millionaires at the expense of the vanishing middle class (and not just in America) by the only avowed democratic socialist in federal American politics, and nearly the only mensch (well, along with Barney Frank). It was just what I wanted for Christmas and Hanukah. This shit is the gelt.

Sometimes you speak truth even knowing power is deaf. And abusive. And would rather look good at basketball than take, to revisit a theme, a goddamn risk.

7. Stretching for substance: Taylor Swift, “A careless man’s careful daughter” in “Mine” (Speak Now LP)

From the "Mine" video: I didn't post the rest 'cuz it's awful

This year Taylor Swift fell into a tabloid-tell-all mode that’s warped the naturalism that served her so well, not to mention overmilking the princessy crap. And where her nemesis Kanye at least freaked out creatively about their encounter of the 2009th kind, making it the sub-theme of his fine (if overpraised) new record, she was all too level and dull on the topic, on an album that marks her predictably awkward transition from teen songwriting prodigy to young-adult celebrity.

Notwithstanding, a key line in the record’s lead single has followed me through the months: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” It may be the most writerly moment in her career, at least in a chorus, with its un-Nashvilley cram of syllables. You can tell how proud she is of it because she puts it in the repeated pivot point of the song. You almost want to come back with the old saw of writing-advice, “Kill your darlings.” But a songwriter in her position might need her darlings in a way a poet or novelist wouldn’t, as a creative love-rival to fame’s blandishments.

In “Mine,” we never hear anything more about the father, but the line tells us enough about who the protagonist is, and who the boyfriend is (his version: “I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter”) to double the narrative’s heft.

That reversal of P.O.V. when the boyfriend assuages her fears could seem rote as craftsmanship, but in pop, rote narrative moves that sync up just right are the ones that get you teary-eyed. Hell, it’s not that dissimilar to the move Stephin Merritt makes in one of my favourite songs, “Papa Was a Rodeo” – it just lacks the knowingness about itself as a move.

I’m not sure why it’s so effective at lumping my throat. Maybe it’s that I’m a careful man’s more careless son. I’ll keep mulling the question in 2011. But I hope that in the next few years, Swift stays proud of it and fills more of her songs with lines like it, till they become adult stories. She’s a country songwriter, after all, and she’s got examples like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard to show that if you hold true to your craft, hang your heart on those pivot points, they can take you anywhere. It’s not about being as fancy a syllable crammer as Elvis Costello, who just as often is hoist on that petard. There’s so much that suggests Swift could get there, and so many reasons to fear that she won’t. Grant me another Xmas pass here while I bet against the house.

8. The medium isn’t such a mess-age: The San Francisco Panorama


After years when there’s been nothing but gloating and/or despairing obits for the print media in which I mostly make my living, I want to give thanks to McSweeneys/The Believer for demonstrating that death isn’t the only possible future.

Their one-shot example of what a glorious print newspaper could look like (it came out in late 2009 but was widely available in 2010) may be starry-eyed, but it makes concrete what I often say to my peers: Losing the position of first choice for news every weekday morning doesn’t doom newspapers. Play to strengths: weekend features, investigative reporting, physical scale and, well, “eye-feel” (the way foodies talk about mouth-feel). And – well, maybe not a 96-page books section, where the publishers played too aggressively to their strengths, but a books section, because those other people of words are allies. I think people would pay, and they’d stay.

My paper took baby steps this direction this year but those booties need a harder sole (soul).

9. Chatty Kathy

Has any cultural source made me regularly happier than Kathleen Phillips’ video blog in 2010? Her live character comedy came close, particularly when I got to help program her (playing a deluded actress-turned-writer) as part of the Scream in High Park this summer. But can that compete with The Ballad of Four Feet Joe? With her other animations of the inanimate? Oh, world, you will never look quite the same and thank Heaven or whatever department is in charge. Even if Virgin Mobile ripped it off in the name of Christ.

10. Sex is so much sexer than sex: The collected works of Tonetta; Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom, 4:35 to end.

It’s been a long year. Remember when all we could talk about was Lady Gaga?  But finally some serious sensual competition came along in the struggle to make humans delirious, delusional, demented by delight. Toronto’s own Tonetta might have occupied my whole year if I were still writing a locally centred music blog (good thing there was someone around to fill in). You could shorthand it as Jandek meets Gaga meets Iggy in your pervert uncle’s basement, but the catchy hooks and obscenity and freak-flag-fluttering come with a poignant sense of a man finding himself in the act of losing himself (this is his post-divorce project). Social-media-voyeurism comes in for a lot of bashing, but Tonetta suggests one of its graces: Helping us discover what in us is worth gawking at.

Joanna Newsom has had that kind of gnosis for a long time, even too much so – she’s less sharp about what to leave out. Still, there are also great grasshopper artistic leaps on her 2010 album Have One on Me, including a verse that leaves me dizzy with desire – not for its singer (however deserving, vide the lascivious montage above), but with thoughts of people in my life who can reliably and relentlessly render me this way:

But it can make you feel over and old, Lord, you know it’s a shame / When I only want for you to pull over and hold me/ Till I can’t remember my own name.

And as she casts this invocation, horns and strings rise restless from every corner as if to redecorate the room for their sex-magickal rites. (RIP Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.) May that be your benediction in the gloaming  of 2010, and as 2011 rises, aroused.

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